Nikon Coolpix P500 Review
The Nikon Coolpix P500 is a new super-zoom compact camera designed to appeal to the keen enthusiast photographer. The P500 has a mechanically-stabilized 36x optical zoom with a massive focal range of 22.5-810mm and an innovative side zoom control. It also offers a 1/2.3" Back Side Illuminated CMOS sensor with 12.2 megapixels, sensitivity range of ISO 160 to 3200, full 1080p HD video recording with stereo sound, slow-motion video at up to 240fps, manual shooting modes, a burst mode of 5 continuous shots at eight frames per second, and a 3-inch 921K-dot tiltable LCD screen. The Nikon Coolpix P500 is available in black or red for £399.99 / $399.95.
Ease of Use
Weighing in at 494 grams, the Nikon Coolpix P500 is slightly heavier than the P100, but its design is only minimally different. Like most high-end superzooms, the Nikon P500 has the typical bridge camera look, with a chunky hand-grip, large lens barrel, pop-up flash and an eye-level electronic viewfinder. The deep grip is moulded to fit comfortably into your right hand, and is rubberised for added comfort.
The other dominant part of the P500 is of course the 32x zoom lens, which goes from an ultra-wide 22.5mm to a massive 810mm in 35mm terms. Considering that with an SLR, you would need at least 3-4 lenses to cover the same focal range, the single, fixed-mount lens of the Nikon P500 can be described as remarkably compact, even if it does extend quite a bit when zoomed to full telephoto. Superzooms have always had a reputation for having a high "fun factor", and the P500 is no different. The ability to quickly go from wide angle to ultra-telephoto is something that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. It certainly gives you a kind of freedom you do not feel with any other type of camera.
For its size, the P500's lens is also respectably fast, with maximum apertures of f/3.4 at 22.5mm and f/5.7 at 810mm. Note that the lens cap has to be removed before turning on the camera - failing to do so will result in an error message being displayed, and you'll have to turn off the camera before you can turn it on again, which is a bit annoying. Although if you only want to review what's already on the card, you can also power on the P500 by holding down the Playback button, in which case the lens won't extend.
Thankfully Nikon has included Vibration Reduction (VR) to help prevent camera-shake, an essential feature on a camera like this. Interestingly, while VR is lens based in the Nikon SLR system, it is of the sensor-shift variety in the P500. Vibration Reduction makes a noticeable difference to the sharpness of the images, as shown in the examples on the Image Quality page.
You can hear a slight mechanical whirring noise when it is turned on, but otherwise you don't really notice it, except that that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos. Sadly, there isn't a dedicated button to turn VR on and off - but at least leaving it on did not seem to negatively affect the battery life, with the camera managing around 220 shots using the supplied Li-ion battery. It's still a good idea to turn VR off (via the menu) when the camera is mounted on a tripod, lest the system itself cause blurring by trying to counter camera shake that isn't there.
Zooming is done by way of a conventional zoom lever that encircles the shutter release button sitting atop the right-hand grip. It is of the dual-speed variety: rotating it all the way in either direction will adjust the focal length quickly, while rotating it partially will cause the lens elements to move slower, enabling you to set the desired focal length more precisely. You can alternatively zoom using the innovative side zoom control on the lens barrel, which is a vertical rocker switch activated with your left hand. It has a slower action than the main zoom lever, and is therefore ideally suited to shooting video when you require a more sedate zoom with less mechanical noise.
There are two different ways of composing images with the Nikon Coolpix P500: you can use either the eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the rear screen. Unfortunately, there are no eye proximity sensors that would allow the camera to toggle between the two automatically - you need to press a button every time you want that to happen. The EVF is a bog standard affair with 230,000 dots and average magnification; nothing to write home about, especially in 2011. The three-inch rear LCD screen is much nicer to look at, thanks to its high resolution of 921,000 dots. Even more importantly, it's articulated and able to tilt up or down, giving you some added flexibility in composing your shots. A truly free-angle LCD, which can also be rotated out to the side, would have been even nicer though.
The layout and number of external controls haven't changed much from the P100. You still get a traditional, top-mounted mode dial with P, A, S and M shooting modes - perfect for the photographer who wants to take full control - as well as full auto, Scene Auto Selector, Smart Portrait, Night Portrait, Night Landscape and Backlighting modes. There is also a User (U) setting you can use to quickly retrieve a combination of your most frequently used settings. The shutter release, zoom lever and power button are essentially in the same locations as on the P100, joined by a new button for continuous shooting.
|Fold-out LCD Screen||Side|
In the Backlighting mode, the P500 captures three consecutive shots at varying exposures and combines them into a single photo with a broader range of tones. Three different HDR settings are available for selection. When the Night Landscape scene mode is selected, the P500 takes several shots at a fast shutter speed and then combines them to create a single optimized photo, allowing you to shoot after dark without having to use a tripod. The Easy Panorama scene mode allows you to take vertical or horizontal panorama photos simply by moving the camera in the direction of the on-screen guides. Multiple shots are then combined into a single panorama photo. The angle of view can be selected from 180° (normal) and 360° (wide).
The rear controls are also laid out very similarly to those of the preceding model. There is a well-positioned control wheel in the top-right corner (when viewed from the back), which makes it easy to change the aperture and shutter speed in A and S modes respectively, but there's still no second dial on the hand-grip which would have made operating Manual mode much easier. The familiar multi-selector with its centred OK button appears identical to the P100, down to the individual functions that are mapped onto the Up, Down, Left and Right buttons. These include the flash and focus modes, the self-timer and exposure compensation, respectively. There is still no shortcut key to ISO speed, which is only accessible from the menu (as is white balance); a major design flaw in our opinion.
The P500's focus modes include AF, Macro, Infinity and Manual. AF can be centre-spot, user selectable from 99 focus points or camera selectable from 9 points. In Face Priority AF mode, the camera can detect up to 12 human faces and will focus on the one closest to the camera. We found that regardless of AF area mode, auto-focus speed was satisfactory for still subjects, but too slow for fast-moving ones. Manual focusing is also possible, though a bit awkward: you get a rudimentary distance scale on the right-hand side of the screen, and can adjust focus via the Up and Down buttons. The centre of the picture is enlarged to aid you with checking focus, but unfortunately this is achieved by way of interpolation rather than real magnification. The whole process is pretty slow, but can still be a godsend when the auto-focus system starts acting up.
The flash of the Nikon P500 has to be popped up manually, using the button on the side of the mock pentaprism housing. You can set the flash mode to auto, auto with red-eye reduction, fill, slow sync and rear-curtain sync via the Up button on the multi-controller, but only when the flash is raised. As there is no hot-shoe or sync terminal on the Nikon Coolpix P500, and it does not offer wireless TTL flash control either, the only way to sync up an external flashgun with the camera is to optically slave it to the built-in unit.
The P500 has the ability to shoot full-resolution stills at up to 8 frames per second (fps), slightly slower than it predecessor. Accessible via the new continuous shooting button on top of the camera, this fast burst mode is called Continuous H. Alas, the camera cannot keep up this speed for long, as the buffer fills up after just 5 shots. In other words, you can only shoot for a bit more than half a second in Continuous H mode. Thankfully, there is also a slower burst mode, called Continuous L, in which the frame rate drops to 2.5fps, but you can capture up to 200 full-resolution photos at the Normal quality setting. Note that you cannot use the flash in any of the continuous shooting modes. Disappointingly the P500 doesn't support the RAW file format, something that all of its main competitors offer, and a prosumer feature that frankly we'd expect on this class of camera.
The P500 can shoot Full HD (1920×1080-pixel) movies at 30 frames per second, with stereo sound and full use of the optical zoom. It also offers a 720p mode at 1280x720 pixels (30 fps) and VGA mode at 640x480 pixels (30 fps). Nikon's smart designers put the stereo microphone on the top of the camera right behind the flash. A Wind Noise Reduction function is available in the Movie menu. Serving to minimise the noise of wind blowing on the microphone, it is recommended to be turned on in strong wind only, as it may also make other sounds difficult to hear. Sensor-shift VR is not available during movie recording, but you may opt to turn on electronic image stabilisation.
The P500 is also capable of high-speed (HS) movie recording, albeit not at Full HD resolution. QVGA videos can be shot at 240fps, VGA movies at 120fps, and HD (720p) clips at 60fps. When these videos are played back at 30fps, they become slow-motion movies. The maximum recording time per clip is limited to 10 seconds in the HS video modes. Sound is not recorded and no form of VR is available. Given the high frame rates, these videos require fast shutter speeds, which effectively means that you need very bright conditions, especially when shooting at 240 frames per second. There is an ingenious movie mode switch around the Movie Record button that toggles between HD and HS movie recording. An elegant and simple solution, although the parameters have to be set via the menu.
Recording movie clips is very easy on the Nikon P500 via the one-touch Movie Record button on the rear of the camera. By pressing this button, you can start recording a clip no matter what shooting mode you are in. You can use the optical zoom while filming, and full-time AF is also available. In use, we found that zooming in or out sometimes caused the image to go temporarily out of focus, but the AF system usually adjusted itself very quickly in these cases. The maximum clip length is limited to 29 minutes. The Creative Slider and Special Effects can also be used when shooting movies, and they can be played back on a HDTV via the built-in HDMI connector, although as usual there's no suitable cable supplied in the box. The P500 supports the CEC feature for HDMI which enables playback control using your TV's remote control.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
The Nikon Coolpix P500's familiar Menu button accesses the usual Nikon menu system, which is clear and easy to navigate. Press this when in any of the shooting modes and there's three menus, Shooting, Movie and Settings, with two menus, Playback and Settings, available when you're reviewing an image. A big oversight is the almost constant need to use the menu system for setting the ISO speed, white balance, metering, and AF mode, with at least 4 button presses required to change these often-used features. The P500 is sorely missing some kind of quick menu system, accessible via an external control, to help speed up its general operation.
In playback mode, pressing the same Menu button affords access to rudimentary image editing, including Nikon's exposure adjusting D-Lighting function, Skin Softening and Filter Effects, image slide shows, and the automatic Quick Retouch. A button to the right features the familiar trashcan icon for deleting images on the fly and completes the rear of the P500.
On the right flank of the camera - still viewing it from the rear - there's a metal eyelet for attaching the supplied shoulder strap. On the left hand flank is another eyelet and a plastic cover protecting the HDMI port and A/V out / USB port. There's a centrally positioned, metal tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. The P500 is powered by a 1100 mAh lithium ion battery, good for around 240 shots, that slots into the base alongside the SD / SDHC / SDXC card slot. There is a small internal memory too, but it will only hold a few photos at full resolution, so you'll definitely need a memory card. Note that recharging the P500 is a somewhat convoluted affair, with the battery remaining in camera and requiring the battery cover to be closed.
The performance of the Nikon P500 is mostly satisfactory. It starts up in under two seconds and zooms pretty quickly yet accurately for a power zoom. As noted earlier, its AF speed is not the greatest, but you'll only notice that when trying to capture fast action. We found the high-speed continuous shooting mode brilliant but sadly limited by a small buffer. The only truly frustrating design flaw is the lack of direct access to ISO speed and white balance. We'd really like to see dedicated buttons for these functions. In Playback mode, the only notable quirk is the inability to magnify into the image from Histogram view - this is something that ought to be easy to address via a firmware upgrade, although that never happened for the P100.
That concludes our look at the Nikon Coolpix P500's ease-of-use, now let's move on to its image quality...